The title of “producer” is sometimes meaningless when it comes to certain genres, like film. It’s no secret that in addition to their colossal salaries, many A-list celebrities request in the fine print of their contracts that they be listed as “co-executive producer” in the credits for their respective projects. Are we really expected in addition to portraying a bipolar CIA agent, Claire Danes is an executive producer for Homeland? But the producer is critical and distinctive in regards to music, especially in hip-hop, where a supreme priority is placed on beats that bang. Even though Nothing Was The Same is a Drake album, the various production wizards involved with the project deserve equal if not more credit for the critically acclaimed release. For all of his versatility and ingenuity, Drake is absolutely indebted to his long-time in-house collaborators, mainly Noah “40” Shebib who, not surprisingly, is responsible for the most triumphant tracks on the album.
I wish there was a more masculine way to say this, but the sonic arrangements on Nothing Was The Same are simply breathtaking. But the keys to successful rap production is to enhance the vocals of the man holding the mic, and for the most part, Drake is able to find a comfortable niche within the instrumental olive branches bestowed upon him. Dr. Dre’s “XXplosive” has permanent residence in just about everyone’s treasure trove of immaculate beats (no not the headphones), but even with those gut-wrenching horns, the track wouldn’t be able to reach a stage of creative maturation without the soulful harmonizing of the late great Nate Dogg.
My own confession as a music nerd will hopefully explain why I put so much stock into album covers. On Take Care, Drake is draped in expensive clothing and surrounded by images of opulence, but the pervading sense is one of darkness and melancholy. What follows after the play button is a profusion of those images conveyed through song, such as the somber excellence of tracks like “Shot For Me,” “Lord Knows,” and “Look What You’ve Done.” But on Nothing Was The Same, Drake is silhouetted by a piercing blue sky and pristinely-shaped clouds. And so, an airy ambiance pervades the bulk of the album, most notably on the introductory track, “Tuscan Leather,” a dazzling composition that only seems to improve exponentially with each passing minute and chord change. Drake is clearly at home here, and as should be the case, an immaculate beat is almost an after-thought as Drake exploits it to its full potential, working within the arena he most excels in: confessionals in the mold of lyrical bars, with a good ole-fashioned dose of braggadocio: “I’m tired of hearing about who you checking for now/ Just give it time/ We’ll see who around a decade from now.”
As the words of Curtis Mayfield and the piano fade away, Drake transitions into “Furthest Thing,” a song akin to the likes of “Karoke” and “Shot For Me” in its sing-song delivery and lovebird content. Once again Drake rides the sonic waves of 40 expertly, and Drake is able to stay afloat on his surfboard, surfboard… for the first quarter of the album. But Drake is on his worst behavior when “From Time,” comes around, and I don’t mean that in an endearing fashion. Like I mentioned earlier, it’s the job of the producer to enhance the vocals, so 40 and the legendary Chilly Gonzales put full trust in Drake and Jhene Aiko, two R&B heavyweights, by using minimalist orchestration revolving around light piano strokes, but the track is an utter disappointment. Other miscalculations occur when Drake puts the production duties unseasoned hands, like “305 To My City,” produced by YMCMB new-comer Detail. While 40 and Boi-Da1 are able to mutate musical structures that somehow sound like practical, organic sojourns, “305 To My City” sounds like a sloppy collection of Garage Band sounds and 808 drums, and neither Drake nor Detail are able to mold the track into anything resembling anything close to an identity. The same can be said for “Worst Behavior,” but most of the blame falls on Drake in this case. He sounds out of his element, and a semi-average beat sounds even worse with the directionless raps from Drake.
But even though the missteps on Nothing Was The Same are glaring, and have the adverse effect of severely diminishing the creative triumphs, they are still only a fraction of the album. For the majority of the album, Drake capitalizes. “The Language” is a shining example of a rapper who is cognizant of his own talents, and the methodical flow Drake employs on the song makes for an enjoyable listen throughout. The world Drake inhabits is mostly unexplored territory; a rapper just as serious about rapping as he is about signing. This is a difficult juggling act, but Drake and 40 have proven their chemistry is strong. Even so, a song like “Hold On, We’re Going Home,” is a brave endeavor for anyone claiming allegiance to hip-hop, and yet, the song is undeniably catchy. Songs like “Connect” and “Too Much,” remain true to the Drakean blend of hip-hop on the R&B rocks.
Other than “Tuscan Leather” and “Started From The Bottom” of course, possibly the most emphatic musical statement on the disc comes with “Pound Cake/Paris Morton 2.” On “Pound Cake,” Drake and Jay collaborate on the same thematic basis as their first collaboration, “Light Up” from Thank Me Later. After Jay spits one of the most memorable verses of the year and flourishing piano of James Evans commences, Drake storms the stage. From word one, it’s evident that the once humble kid from Toronto has grown into a self-assured star, and in his frank assessment, has no one to thank but himself:
“Like I should be less aggressive and pessimistic
Like I should be way more nervous and less dismissive
Like I should be on my best behavior
And not talk my shit and do it major like the niggas who paved a way for us
Like I didn’t study the game to the letter
And understand that I’m not doin’ it the same, man, I’m doin’ it better
Like I didn’t make that clearer this year
Like I should feel–I don’t know–guilty for saying that
They should put a couple more mirrors in here so I can stare at myself”
It remains to be seen whether Drake can continue this level of album quality in his subsequent releases, but with three quality studio albums and a classic mixtape to boot, it appears that the world will be forced to reckon with the former Degrassi actor for a long time to come.